Merger to create Victorian Information Commissioner and faster FOI

By David Donaldson

Wednesday May 25, 2016

Victoria will merge two information-related agencies to form its own version of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the government announced on Tuesday.

Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings says the amalgamation of the Office of the Freedom of Information Commissioner and the Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection will streamline the state’s information and data oversight bodies.

The new body, known as the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner, will be led by the Victorian information commissioner, with two deputies: the public access deputy commissioner, who will improve FOI decision-making, and a privacy and data protection deputy commissioner.

The announcement represents a tweaking of the government’s pre-election promise to create an Office of the Public Access Counsellor, basically a strengthened FOI Commissioner. Including the Privacy and Data Protection portfolio will bring together similar functions into a single body.

Broader transparency reforms

It’s part of a suite of wider reforms to give greater oversight and transparency of the Victorian government.

The new agency will, for the first time, have the ability to review ministerial and departmental decisions, including under cabinet exemptions.

This will make it easier — and cheaper — to seek a review of departmental decisions, currently only attainable under the nuclear option of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

Legislation soon to be introduced into parliament will also reduce the time to respond to an FOI request from 45 days to 30 days, and will reduce the time agencies have to seek VCAT review from 60 days down to 14.

There are further reforms ahead, too — the government says it will announce details of a comprehensive review of Victoria’s FOI legislation soon.

The current commissioner for privacy and data protection, David Watts — who recently spoke to The Mandarin — and the current acting freedom of information commissioner, Michael Ison, will both continue in their roles until OVIC is established.

Under existing structures, the FOI Commissioner handles complaints about government decisions and monitors legislative compliance. The Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection provides guidance to the public sector in dealing with personal information and provides a recourse for complaints from the community.

Privacy is an area where machinery of government has changed a lot in the past few years — it was only in September 2014 that the Office of the Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection was created out of a merger itself, with the amalgamation of the Office of the Commissioner for Law Enforcement Data Security, which was focused on Victoria Police, and the Victorian Privacy Commissioner.

Jennings said in a statement: “We said that we’d overhaul Victoria’s freedom of information system to give Victorians better access to government information and we’re doing just that.”

The government announced in March it would create an agency to facilitate information sharing across the VPS, which would start out by focusing on family violence data sharing.

The Office of the Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection recently released a mobile app to act as a digital reference library for privacy and data protection material, as well as a checklist tool for information sharing.

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